The Human Interest Trap
Published in J-Source on Oct. 20, 2010
By Claude Adams
For the Chilean miners, as for the reporters who covered the story, the common theme of the 70-day drama in the desert was entrapment. The miners were trapped underground. The reporters were trapped in their narrow narrative: all human interest, all the time.
The miners found deliverance when they made it to the surface. The media, however, are left to deal with the critical post-mortems that invariably arise from this kind of event. They are accused of turning news into nuisance. They created a “circus,” they whipped up a “frenzy,” they stepped on people’s toes, violated privacy, and abandoned all proportionality in pursuing tears, conflict and melodrama.
In the process they left decorum behind. As Steven Bodzin of the The Christian Science Monitor reported, television cameramen roughly fought for their positions, even if it got in the way of family members who just wanted to celebrate. And once the celebrations started, reporters collapsed the tent in their rush to get close to the emotion. As if that wasn’t enough, they then dug into the awkward private lives of some of the miners.
Or else they gushed (MSNBC: “I think we need this as a world!”) or revealed their cultural cluelessness (“How do they get the doves to fly down there?” asked one reporter, not knowing that the Spanish for “doves” is an idiom for the packages sent down to the miners.)
Meanwhile, there were the stories they didn’t cover: the 250 miners who escaped the mine but lost their jobs, the shockingly poor safety record of the mine in question, the way the story was exploited by a billionaire president who had been criticized for not doing enough for Chile in the wake of last February’s earthquake. And the fact that as 33 miners were being pulled to safety, thousands of lives are lost every month in the world’s mines. Death isn’t nearly as compelling as deliverance.
They couldn’t do these other stories during the Rescue Countdown because they were trapped in the feel-good narrative of a resurrection story that would be choreographed to perfection. They were bound to one of the ruling principles of journalism of this kind of event: Never, ever, for even a second, take your eye off the singular human drama as it unfolds, even if every other reporter is tracking the same story, the same image. It’s the Iron Law of the Pack.
(I once heard a foreign editor argue that the “world”—meaning his audience—could only “handle” one major international story at any one time. This belief--that news consumers cannot cope with complexity and ambiguity--is at the root of the media’s embrace of the one-dimensional human interest story, to the exclusion of anything else.)
Imagine trying to convince a news editor back home that your time might be better served leaving Ground Zero and chasing another story. Say, how politicians and officials historically unconcerned about working conditions underground are now milking the rescue for its public relations value. Talk about spoiling the party!
So the miners became heroes through the simple act of survival under unpleasant conditions (hundreds of millions of anonymous Africans do this every day) and a lackluster president was elevated to world acclaim, just for being there. It’s a familiar bland black-and-white media template that’s perfectly suited to lazy journalism.
It’s a way of working, of course, that’s imposed on individual journalists by their bosses. There are few things riskier for a journalist than to depart from the standard text of a breaking human interest story, or worse, to be “missing” in pursuit of one’s own initiative when the story that everybody else is covering happens to break.
All this prevailed in the Chilean story. But there, the rescuers did one thing differently. They were smart enough to keep reporters a safe distance away, behind a fence. But even then, the rescue organizers had a captive audience. The Pack had little to do but to keep the cameras with their long-distance lens trained on the rescue shaft, with occasional segues to the encampment of anxious waiting families.
It was a subtle and nuanced negotiation between the Chilean government and the world press: We’ll give you proximity and pictures, but never forget that we own this story, and we’ll manage it our way.
Once upon a time, it was a different story altogether.
On a November day 25 years ago, in a mountainous region not far from Bogota, Colombia, a volcano erupted and propelled a mountain of mud onto the town of Armero, swallowing up 20,000 inhabitants in a few seconds. It took a day or two for the world’s press to arrive, but when we did, it was anarchy. We trampled over half-buried bodies, got in the way of rescue crews, searched for survivors to interview, and came to half-baked conclusions about the slowness of the government’s emergency response.
Inevitably, the Pack was drawn to a 13-year-old girl, Omayra Sanchez, who was trapped up to her chest in mud and debris. We took turns interviewing her, we did our stand-ups with Omayra in the background, we traced her life story, and we watched, hour after hour, as efforts to pull her out of the debris failed. One or two network reporters were determined to have the cameras rolling as Omayra breathed her last breath. That happened about 60 hours after the mudslide—a teenager expiring after an ordeal that had not a moment of privacy.
When the last survivors were pulled out, and the last of the dead were buried, we all went home and considered our work done.
But the lesson of Chile, as is the lesson of Rwanda and Haiti and a hundred other human interest hot spots, is that the real work of journalism, the grunt work, is often found away from the centre of the “action,” and after the camera lights have been turned off.
It’s Journalism 101 from the Wizard of Oz--the way out of the human interest trap. While everyone else is transfixed by smoke and lightning, take the time to look behind the curtain. Often that’s where you’ll find the real story.